There are 500 member-shareholders, each of whom stumped up at least £500 when the Society appealed for funds in 1996. The funds were intended both to build up stocks of whisky and to set up the London operation. The London rooms might well have been opened earlier, had circumstances been more propitious. As it was, according to managing director Richard Gordon who joined in 1994, the Society was “on the brink, with debts of £500,000.” Within two years, he says, it was making a trading profit. Now, with the opening of the new London members’ rooms, it’s in debt again. But this time, Gordon says with some relief, it is within normal limits.The SMWS is no stranger to ups and downs. Mention the name of its founder, Pip Hills, to Gordon and the temperature changes perceptibly, although he does volunteer that Hills had the vision and energy and ideas to get the thing off the ground. Hills is no longer involved and between the British Society and the American one of the same name there seems to exist something of an uneasy truce. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in the US owns its name and buys whiskies from the SMWS. The US SMWS is now entirely owned by Alan Shayne, who set it up in 1993, and now says of the break: “It was more feasible to have an independent company here in the US. It was easier; responsibilities were more clearly defined. I don’t know why they wanted to sell. My guess is that they had gone into new markets like Japan and France at the same time as into the US. There were changes in personnel in Britain at the same time.” Bottling lists
The SMWS in Britain now claims around 14,500 members, with 5,000 in the US. Each new British member pays £30, or £75 if they want the introductory bottle that comes with it. Renewal costs £20 a year. For that you get a quarterly newsletter, six bottling lists, the use of the members’ rooms in Edinburgh and London, accommodation in modestly priced self-catering flats in Edinburgh, and the opportunity to buy tickets for the Society's tastings. US members pay $149 plus shipping for their first year of membership, and then renew for $25. These bottlings are, one would assume, the point of the Society and the reason why anyone would join. But the average annual purchase is only around two per member – and since Mike Rumble says he buys most of his whisky from the SMWS – that means several members must be buying nothing at all. If they belong just for the pleasure of belonging, it’s not surprising: the Society is highly knowledgeable, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its atmosphere is a mixture of the amateur (in the best, 18th century meaning of the word) with modern professionalism. Yet it has a slightly odd relationship with some parts of the whisky industry. First of all the list gives no distillery names (although some of the hints in the tasting notes are fairly broad), each whisky is identified by a distillery and bottling number, together with its alcoholic strength, age and cask number. Each bottling is from a single cask. Commercial cask-strength bottlings by the distilleries themselves are usually vattings of several casks, otherwise quantities would be too small. At one point the Society did print a list of which bottlings came from where, and the companies didn’t like it at all so the SMWS never did it again. “We’re not trying to piggyback on anyone’s marketing,” says Gordon, and one gets the feeling that this is a reassurance he has had to give many times before. Just two companies currently decline to sell casks to the Society. The casks from which the Society selects its bottlings might be offered by a distillery, or the Society might ring a distillery and ask if they have a cask of a particular year available, or casks might come via brokers. Some of the whiskies sold as investments in the past (see Whisky Magazine, Issue Two) are offered to it from time to time. “But,” says Gordon,“They were often filled into some pretty indifferent wood.” Of the samples tasted by the SMWS tasting panel, chaired by Whisky Magazine’s editor-at-large Charlie MacLean, about two-thirds are rejected. It may not always be a question of quality, keeping a balance of age, styles and prices is also important.Prices are higher than for commercial bottlings of single malts, and in the summer list range from £33 ($53)to £75 ($120) per bottle. It’s easy to think that by not naming the distillery the Society removes all points of comparison, and thus charges what it feels like. But the Society’s costs are many times higher. “We bottle in a year what they bottle in a couple of hours,” says Gordon. “We have to pay more for labels, everything. We’re paying for hand-finishing. Our costs are non-commercial. Our mark-up varies from bottling to bottling. A cask might prove half empty, yet we can’t necessarily pass that on. If it’s a 10-year-old whisky, we can’t charge £70 ($113) for it. Distilleries say our old whiskies are far too cheap.”If that’s the case, are they afraid that investors might spot an opportunity to make a killing? “We hope not,” Gordon replies. “Some things have come up at auction – a member may die, and the family might sell the whiskies – but they haven’t gone for stupid prices. Collectors go for distillery labels. Our labels don’t encourage collectors.”The SMWS’s other major investment is in its own stocks of whisky. It now has some 500 casks, the wood chosen and bought by the Society, maturing at various distilleries across Scotland. Some contain new fillings, some have older whiskies. They’ll be coming on stream in the next few years. Look out for them in the newsletter and in Edinburgh and London.